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Essay Question: Why is the concept of social facts so significant for Durkheim’s work? Illustrate your answer with reference to at least one of his studies.

This essay will look at social facts and the significance of them to Durkheim’s work, Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) a French sociologist wrote a series of controversial monographs, showing the methods and subject matter of the new science of sociology. Some of his major works include The Division of Labour in Society (1893), The Rules of Sociological Method (1895) and Suicide (1897), this essay will take a closer look at Durkheim’s work on Suicide, and his concept of social facts being so significant in his studies.

For Durkheim the science of sociology was to be characterized by observation not abstract theory, he was interested in the study of social facts rather than psychological facts, providing both causal and functional explanations. The principles he applied can be found in his work Suicide (1897), here Durkheim demonstrates how such a personal act is ultimately determined by society, the suicide rate is therefore a social fact (Marshall, 1998). Social facts for Durkheim are as important as other sciences deal with natural facts, he was to approach this in the same way other sciences deal with natural facts, in that they are external and constraining, facts are external to our thoughts and constrain the course of human behaviour, even though we may not be fully aware of their doing so (Hughes, et.al. 1995). We as human beings may not particularly feel constrained in our everyday lives; Durkheim argues that despite this, such feelings are sometimes illusory, “we do not feel constrained insofar as what we do coincides with what we are standardly required to do”( Hughes, et.al.1995. pg,161)

Durkheim is saying that; in society we all as participants may not be fully aware of the rules and regulations that are being imposed on us, individuals go about their everyday lives, unconscious to the constraints being placed upon them, it is only when we do something out of what is seen as the “norm” we may face hostility or even harsher treatment. We are all faced with standard obligations, ones which are the products of our collective lives, we did not invent them, but arose out of the patterns of our individual relations, although we encounter these obligations individually, they apply to anyone occupying the relevant social position, we may not feel constrained, but will become aware of them if we try to defy them (Hughes, et.al. 1995).

Social facts are to be considered as “things” they are not physical but mental facts, they are facts of our collective life. We as individuals may be aware of the standard obligations which apply to us, take for example being a member of a family, we are all aware of what we are supposed to do, but looking at how the family has grown up as a part of social organisation, and the different ways it evolves over time, the impacts it has on society as a whole, without sociological research we would remain ignorant of these matters, the same way we are ignorant as to why we as individuals do the things we do (Hughes, et.al. 1995). Sociology for Durkheim was the scientific study of a reality sui generis; a defined group of phenomena, Durkheim reserved the term social facts, i.e. “a category of facts which present very special characteristics, they consist of manners of acting, thinking, and feeling external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they exercise control over him” [www.durkheim.uchicago.edu.com.10/01/2011]. These facts could not be confused with biological phenomena or the province of psychology; they existed outside the individual conscience. It was to define the proper method for their study that Durkheim wrote The Rules of Sociological Method (1895) [www.durkheim.uchicago.edu.com.10/01/2011].

For Durkheim there are two types of social facts, material and non material, the non material facts constitute the main subject of the study of sociology, these non material social facts do not have a material reality, there features consist of norms, values and systems of morality. In Durkheim’s terminology some of these non material social facts are collective consciousness, social currents and morality, an example of the latter is Durkheim’s analysis of Suicide [www.uregina.ca/social facts and suicide.com. 09/01/2011].

It was not the aim of Durkheim to explain or predict an individual tendency to suicide, it was to explain one type of non material social facts, social currents. Social currents are characteristics of society, they may not have the stability and permanence that some parts of collective representations have. These social currents in the case of suicide are expressed as suicide rates, rates that differ among societies and within different groups in society. Durkheim found that these rates show regularities over time, with changes in the rates often occurring at similar times within different societies, these rates can be said to be social facts (or at least the statistical representations of social facts) they are not just personal, but are societal characteristics [www.uregina.ca/social facts and suicide.com. 09/01/2011].

Durkheim’s study of Suicide (1897) achieved its notoriety through its promotion as the model for sociology as a scientific discipline, mainly because of its extensive use of statistics in his study, It was to become the main feature that established Suicide’s claim to exemplary scientific status, it was also a demonstration of not only the injunction to treat social facts as things, but also the method by which this can be achieved. The statistical rates were not social facts themselves but, rather, indicative of them (Hughes.et.al. 1995) Durkheim began his study by examining suicide records in and around France, the statistics displayed that some categories of people were more prone to take their own lives, he also noticed that men had a higher tendency than women (Macionas, Plummer. 1998).

As Durkheim considered these statistics as social facts, he believed that they could be used to find the sociological causes of suicide rates, he would go on to try and establish correlations, and using the comparative method, uncovering patterns that would reveal the causal relationships at work in the production of suicide rates (Haralhambos, Holborn. 2008) Suicide (1897) was not written with the intention of explaining why individuals commit suicide, its intention was to show why suicide rates exhibit such stability (Hughes. et.al. 1995).

Durkheim developed a four fold classification system of suicides, the first one he named ‘Egoistic suicide’, is characterized by a general depression, displayed in the form of melancholic languor or Epicurean indifference (Durkheim. 1951) this type of suicide occurs when the individual has insufficiently integrated into a particular social group, resulting in the individual feeling isolated and excluded from society, this can be seen in unmarried people especially males. Durkheim examined the role of religion in this category, he noticed that in Catholic countries suicide was lower than in Protestant countries, Durkheim argued the greater the freedom given in Protestantism, had to be connected to the higher suicide rate (but only in connection with the type of Protestant church) [www.reviews/Durkheim.com. 08/01/2011].

‘Altruistic suicide’ is another type which Durkheim viewed as the opposite of egoistic, the individual having too much social integration within the group, to the extent the individual may view his/her own life of less value than the well-being of the group; resulting in the individual feeling so weak they find themselves having demands placed upon them by the group, such as their own life, the military would be an example of this type of suicide, individuals putting the group before themselves; (Hughes. et.al. 1995) an extreme of this could be suicide bombers.

‘Anomic suicide’ for Durkheim is the type of suicide identified with an abrupt shift in an individual’s circumstances, these shifts could involve a persons membership being removed from a well integrated group [www.deathreference/Durkheim.com] it was also associated with moral regulations, the ‘anomic’ type could result in the absence of societies control over the individual’s aspirations and hopes, and is of considerable importance to Durkheim (Hughes. et.al. 1995).

‘Fatalistic suicide’ occurring when members of tightly knit groups’ found their lives were being suppressed and hindered, whose ‘futures are pitilessly blocked and passions violently choked by oppressive discipline’ (Durkheim 1951, pg. 276). Slaves or prisoners of war who were bound into distinct groups and passions that was dominated by other groups, may commit this type of suicide in order to demonstrate control over their lives, or escape group membership

[www.deathreference/Durkeim.com. 10/01/2011
A feminist perspective on gender, family and suicide, Sydie, R, A. (1987) discusses Durkheim’s claim concerning female and male suicide rates, Durkheim examined the gender differences in the rates of suicide, in those of married, widowed, divorced etc. Durkheim in general, found that women have lower suicide rates than men, also that there are different rates associated with marital status, and in different countries.

The statistics in single male, and male divorces, are particularly subject to suicide, here Sydie argues that it is based on Durkheim’s view that marriage being better for men than of women; Sydie goes on to say that for Durkheim marriage provides tranquillity and moral calmness for men, and in order to lessen the suicide rate in men, the institution of marriage should be strengthened. Whereas with women, they tend to be negatively affected by marriage, Durkheim states that women’s sexual needs are more biological and less mental than men’s, women’s mental life is less developed, females are more instinctive, and less social regulation is needed for women compared to that of men. Stronger marriage institutions would increase the suicide rate within females, and lessen the male rate [www. uregina/social facts/Durkheim.com. 09/01/2011].

Durkheim’s general purpose in writing Suicide (1897) was to demonstrate that sociology can, should, must be an independent science of the universe of human action (Douglas, 1967). Durkheim had a strong structural view of society, also the manner in which each individual is influenced by these social facts and how we must fit into these, he attempted to see a role for the social as distinguished from the economic, biological and psychological. It is displayed in his view of the social influences on suicide rates,

he takes a wide assortment of factors and considers their influence on the tendency or aptitude for suicide, these must be mediated by social factors. The social factors that he identified in particular were the degree of regulation and integration [uregina/social facts/Durkheim.com.09/01/2011].

Factors used by others to explain suicide included race, heredity, climate and individual psychopathic states (mental illness) and imitation. Durkheim’s method of analysis should prove useful for sociologists today, in terms of suicide, the social causes are well identified , any analysis of suicide would have to include these. The method of suicide more generally is exemplary; in providing researchers with a means of understanding the social factors associated with particular phenomena [uregina/social facts/Durkheim.com. 09/01/2011].

It is clear that for Durkheim ‘social facts’ and the use of them in his studies, were significant; as in the way other sciences dealt with natural facts, he was to revolutionise the science of sociology, and the ways in which it studies social phenomena, each social fact must be explained by another social fact, rather than by reducing social phenomena to individual motivations and behaviour (Roberts. 2009).


Douglas, J, D. (1967) The Social Meaning of Suicide. America: Princeton University Press.
Durkheim, E. (1951) Suicide A Study in Sociology. Norfolk: The Free Press.

Haralhambos, M. and Holborn, M. (2008) Sociology Themes and Perspectives. 7th ed. London: HarperCollins Publishers Limited.

Hughes, J, A. Martin, P, J. and Sharrock, W, W. (1995) Understanding Classic
Sociology. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Macionas, J, J. and Plummer, K. (1998) Sociology a Global introduction. New Jersey: Prentice Hall Inc.

Marsh, I. and Keating, M. (2006) Sociology Making sense of society. 3rd ed. Essex: Pearson Education Ltd.

Marshall, G. (1998) Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Roberts, K. (2009) Key Concepts in Sociology. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

http://www.durkheim.uchicago.edu/summaries [Accessed 10/01/2011]

http://www.uregina/social facts/suicide.ca/~gingrich/o 28f99 .html [Accessed 09/01/2011]

http://www.deathreference.com/Da-Em?Durkheim-mile.html [Accessed 10/01/2011] http://www.reviews.ctpdc.co.uk/Durkheim.html [Accessed 08/01/2011]

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